Looking forward: start building an online presence

I recently began helping small businesses in the Midwest town I live build an online presence to compliment their day-to-day operations.  Expecting to jump right into conversations about clients, sales goals, and new products, I instead found many businesses where not convinced they needed to be found online.

The most common comment I heard was that their customers don’t use the internet or email to get information.  At first I found this hard to imagine but soon learned people in my home town use newspapers, posters in store windows, and a free two-paged daily “briefing” distributed to local restaurants and businesses to get information over the internet.  In trying to understand why the internet is not a first choice for getting information, I realized that the cost and quality of the service is an important factor. There are two providers available in the area and due to the high cost for a faster speed service most users choose a slow service which makes the internet experience “limited.”  Another factor in the choice people make in how they get information is habit.  People don’t readily add new ways to get information unless they believe they are missing something.  I often hear, “why use the internet when I get all the information I need from what I already use.”

I am always looking for examples to illustrate how getting information is changing and will change even in a small town.  The statistics provided by the major online services about the activity on their site in the hours after the death of Michael Jackson was newsworthy but also shows how people are using these services to get information.

•    Google searches reported a “meteoric” spike in the hours following the news of Jackson’s illness.  Google’s official blog explains the “We’re Sorry” page was displayed for the first 25 minutes in response to any searches about Jackson thinking there was an automated attack.

•    Twitter volume of tweets per second doubled, with over 5,000 related tweets per minute.

•    Facebook reported status updates were three times the average during the hour after the news emerged.

•    Beyond social media, newspaper’s Web sites also had a marked increase in visits.  The Los Angeles Times reported their Web site had nearly 2.3 million hits in the hour the story broke. Yahoo’s news site set an all-time record in unique visitors with 16.4 million people, surpassing the previous record of 15.1 million visitors on election day.

People of all ages with all types of interests are learning how to find information that interest them online.  And once they begin using the internet to find what they need, there will be no turning back.  People often begin using the internet to look for information outside their immediate physical location -like experiencing the presidential inauguration.  These types of internet experiences gives users a taste for other types of online experiences and can lead to expanded types of search for information such as product information, movie recommendations,  store hours, or directions.

Strategically, I advise business owners to think of growing their online presence while their customers expand their use of the internet.  Content development is one of the biggest challenges for a business building an online componet to their business.  Getting it just right is trying a little of this and a little of that, while monitoring the response.  The argument that “my customers don’t use the internet” ignores the fact illustrated by recent events that they will and when they do, a sucessful business will be ready with great content and information.